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Brief History of the Basque people
and the Gauden Bat
Where the Pyrenees Mountains slope down into the Bay of Biscay of the North Atlantic there lies a region which is home to Europe’s mystery people. We know these people as the Basques, but in their unique language they call themselves Euskaldunak (which means speaker of Basque) and their ancient homeland they have traditionally termed Euskal Herria (Land of the Basques), or more recently Euskadi. It is comprised of the seven traditional provinces that bridge the border between France and Spain. The people and their language are mysterious because no one is quite certain as to their origins. Many theories have been forwarded, yet they do not answer the question which may forever remained unsolved. They are neither Spanish nor French by racial heritage: long before the precursors of the modern Spanish and French people-the Indo-Europeans-the Basques inhabited this small corner of Europe. Their unique language they call Euskara. It is like no other language spoken in Europe-or the world.
The Basques were among the earliest Europeans in the New World. Many of Columbus’ sailors were Basque, but even before his voyage Basques had found the Americas in and around Newfoundland. They later became prominent in the history of Spanish California, leaving many place names of Basque origin. With the discovery of gold in 1849, the Basques, as others, made their way to California in the mid-nineteenth century, and many turned to other forms of labor and commerce. Basques soon found a place in the thriving cattle market that ventured to feed the swelling population of California. When a disastrous drought decimated the California cattle herds, many Basques turned to raising sheep. Their fame as dependable herders soon spread, Basque and non-Basque sheep owners soon sought the services of young Basques to tend their herds. Thus it was via the sheep industry that many immigrating Euskaldunak found new opportunities in America.
From those early years in the sheep industry, the Basques have now diversified into a wide variety of occupations. Through it all-the long journey to the American West, the lonely years out on the open range endured by the Basque shepherds, and the adoption of their new homeland-Basque Americans have retained a special pride in their unique heritage. Every summer, Basque communities throughout the American West host their annual festivals that collect Basques and their friends for a celebration. These gatherings serve to treat the senses of the participants. The taste enjoys Basque cuisine, while the ears enjoy the songs of Euskera and Basque music, played upon the accordion and the txistu or the Basque flute. Archeological findings have discovered that an earlier form of the txistu dates back over 27,000 years-music has been with the Basques for a long time. The eyes are treated to the performance of the traditional Basque Folk dances that younger Basque-Americans maintain.
Formal Basque dancing in Southern California began as early as the 1930s. Basques of the immigrant generation would come together to perform the dances that they grew up dancing in their native towns in Euskal Herria. Then in 1969, the group of dancers took the name of Gauden Bat-which means “let us be one”. Jean Louis Cihigoyenetche from Arneguy was the leader for a number of years but in 1969 Paco Senosian became involved with the group providing new dances and a choreography for the “Gauden Bat Fandango”. The group continues to perform at various Basque festivals through-out North America.
The Gauden Bat consists of over thirty young Basque-Americans who perform the traditional dances of their ancestors.
There are well over four hundred Basque folk dances, each with its own story and significance. They all fit into two broad categories: 1) the traditional or ritual dances, and 2) the more recent social or recreational dances. Many were preserved and perpetuated by the local villages and towns of their origin, being passed on from generation to generation. Most all were originated in the Basque country, while Basques adapted a few others from their neighbors because they depicted their way of life.
Most all of our dances share the same context or point of origin: a traditional, agrarian world when people made their living off the land. To a great extent the lives of country people were ruled by the natural world around them. Each season brought its own set of activities in the house and on the land. These activities were governed by the weather and requirements of the animals and the crops. These influences are apparent throughout numerous dances. Other dances of a ritual sense evolved to form the seven Basque provinces there originates an uncharacteristically wide assortment of dances for such a small region. Some of these dances reach back over the centuries while others are more recent in origin. They include the sword dances from the province of Bizkia with the Txankarrekua as the dancers hoist a fallen warrior above their head to pay tribute to him.
The Gauden Bat Euskal Dantzariak are indeed a unique cultural expression. When we dance the audience is presented a combination of whirling skirts, striking sticks, high kicks, exciting tunes punctuated by the festive yell, the Irrintzi. We hope that you will enjoy the ancient dances that tell the story of proud people.